August 29, 2023
The Las Vegas Aces limited Jonquel Jones. The New York Liberty won anyway.
'In order for us to be great, you don’t want to rush it'
BROOKLYN — Courtney Vandersloot couldn’t pinpoint exactly when she knew that her team, the New York Liberty, were going to beat the Las Vegas Aces on Monday night. Alongside the backdrop of 11,615 raucous home fans in just the Liberty’s third and final home game in August, she just had a feeling and a confidence that she and her team were in control. There wasn’t a way that the Liberty were going to falter, and they didn’t, winning 94-85 to draw closer in the race for the WNBA’s top seed, not even on a night Jonquel Jones wasn’t her usually dominant self.
“After our slow start, we came back and we really picked it up defensively,” Vandersloot said postgame. ”I think we were making things hard for them.”
New York evened the regular season series against Las Vegas by out scoring their rivals 17-13 in transition and holding the Aces to 36 points in the paint, a number below their season average.
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The Liberty had found success against the Aces this season when their center and the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup MVP Jonquel Jones dominated on both ends of the floor. Her length, defensive mobility and offensive versatility that allows her to score inside and on the perimeter, troubled Las Vegas. Without Candace Parker, who is sidelined due to a foot injury, the Liberty have exploited the Aces and their limited two-way options in the frontcourt beyond A’ja Wilson.
After New York’s Comissioner’s Cup victory where the Liberty proved that they knew exactly how they could wear down Wilson, the Aces adjusted. Their strategy to get easier and more space for their franchise face and cut down on the length that both she and their floor general Chelsea Gray had to spar against was in neutralizing Jones. She’s been the main catalyst in the Liberty’s journey from a team that surrendered leads to a team that builds on them.
The plan: Las Vegas had to get Jones off the floor, get her incredibly uncomfortable while on it and then get to work. And their plan in response to losing the Commissioner’s Cup worked. While Jones played in 24 minutes and had 8 boards, she only scored 8 points and had 5 field goals. She turned the ball over 4 times. The Aces often doubled her and clogged her field of view. As a result, Wilson scored 21 points on 7-for-13 shooting and Chelsea Gray put up the first Vegas triple-double in franchise history.
“I didn’t think we were as aggressive in the last game,” Liberty wing Betnijah Laney said to reporters Monday night about the Aug. 17 loss to the Aces. She didn’t feel like her team was there for each other throughout the whole 40 minutes and didn’t adapt when one of their front court anchors wasn’t at her best.
10 days later, how would the Liberty be ready for that same exact situation if it were to arise? Pregame Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello alluded to the people who she could slot in Jones’ place in Kayla Thornton and Stefanie Dolson, who game-by-game is getting her wind back after being out for 7 weeks with an ankle sprain. Dolson got quality minutes in the Liberty’s 111-76 blowout of the Minnesota Lynx on Aug. 26, and Thornton, who Brondello called “one of the most physical players out there”, would also have to step up.
“We’ve just got to be ready for anything,” Brondello said pregame. “But hopefully we stay out of foul trouble, but it’s part of the game, isn’t it?”
To her dismay, the Liberty and Jones in particular didn’t stay out of foul trouble. The 2021 MVP played in only 17 minutes, picked up 5 fouls, scored 4 points on 1-8 shooting and had a -26.3 net rating.
How did Jones’ reinforcements do in her place? When Kayla Thornton checked into the game, she made sure Wilson wouldn’t have the comfort, space and opportunity to even fire a shot off. In her first defensive possesion on the floor, she rotated to Wilson once she saw that Stewart was going to help Ionescu put two on the ball. Then Thornton read Jackie Young’s pass like a book, stayed in front of Wilson without making contact and then forced the ball out of her hands.
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Following a three-point miss from Thornton, the next time down the floor, she stopped Wilson again. But, this time no dig down was needed. When Chelsea Gray passed by Sabrina Ionescu and then Breanna Stewart, she had the pocket pass to Wilson wide open. Or so she thought. Thornton was right there at the right place at the right time with the right angle to make sure Wilson wasn’t going to score.
When Jones picked up her third foul with more than seven minutes left in the first half, it was Dolson’s turn to step up. With 6:53 on the clock and the game tied at 24, Dolson screened Wilson to give Stewart some more time and space with the ball, allowing Stewart to find Marine Johannès floating around on the wing. Chelsea Gray couldn’t keep up with how Johannès can create so quickly, and just like that the Liberty had a three-point lead.
While Dolson played in only six minutes, those six minutes led to New York’s success.
“I think having KT and Stef Dolson coming off the bench is a luxury for us,” Brondello said. “And Stef hasn’t played a lot…but she’s one of the smartest basketball players in the whole league. She knows how to execute a game plan and she was big for us tonight, so that was a luxury for us to have.”
While it was Thornton and Dolson who compensated for Jones when it came to size and physicality, who manufactured her scoring output?
The two of them combined for just three points. Dolson hit a wide open three on a Vandersloot drive and kick and Thornton missed all of her shots. Stewart put up a 20-12 double-double with seven assists, just below her scoring average.
The other starters — Laney, Ionescu and Vandersloot — all scored in double figures on Monday night. The Liberty starters finished with 83 points, which technically wouldn’t have been enough to beat the Aces. That’s where Johannès came in. In 14 minutes of action, the French guard scored eight points and didn’t miss a shot.
“Johannès comes in and hits us again for you know 8 quick ones,” Aces head coach Becky Hammon said postgame. “She does her work dirty. She’s like a little assassin, a sniper. It comes in. Bang, bang. And she’s out before you even see her.”
And while Johannès’ efficient scoring was a separator for the Liberty, her length served as another way in which the Liberty could compensate for Jones. With the Liberty up one with six minutes left in the half, she was in position at the right time to provide help to Stewart on a Wilson drive to the basket. Johannès stretched her Mr. Fantastic-like arms to dig down and bat the ball to interrupt Wilson’s handle. She took a shot on Stewart, but it wasn’t at all in rhythm and it bounced off the backboard. Johannès leaped and followed the ball to get the board off the glass.
This outcome or rather the order of operations required to get the win was the vision of Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb when he was putting together this roster. He wanted a roster with a deep bench that was talented and proven enough to step up when other teams were going to take away New York’s starters. And while he was proud of not only his team’s success on Monday night, he knows there’s a lot more work to do.
“It’s close to getting to where we want to be,” he told reporters postgame. “We just need consistency.”
And that could also be said of what the vibe was at Barclays Center on Monday night, an evening when the Liberty sold out the arena and had more people in the stands than they did on Aug. 6. The Liberty are now fifth in average attendance this year, in a virtual tie with fourth-place Minnesota.
The 11,615 fans in attendance roared whenever a smooth pass or a sharp cut was made by a Liberty player. You could hear an ooooo and ahhh sound rising like a tide in concert with the Liberty’s crisp ball movement.
Stewart summed up the evening and potentially the Liberty’s story over the past five years when she was asked what she’s learned from not only the season, but from the four games that the Liberty played against the Aces in the month of August. While months ago it looked like Las Vegas was in a league of its own to repeat as champions, the Liberty once again roared back and uttered not so fast.
“In order for us to be great, you don’t want to rush it,” Stewart said.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.